“Guard the month of the spring.”
There is a pervasive sense of loss throughout the Talmud, with the references to the destruction of the first and second Temples, which were the golden homes that united the Jewish people from their perch in Jerusalem. The memory of the second Temple is especially prominent in the Shekalim Tractate. The entire Tractate with its oddly numbered sections and small print, is focused on its finances.
The Tractate provides a view into what life was once like, starting with the collecting of the half-shekels. The funds were collected once a year, with the goal of completing the activity before the start of the month of Nisan, which coincided with the coming of Spring. The reading of this Tractate occurred at a time when those of us who live in northern climates were crawling out of the cocoon of the darkness of winter and learning once again to embrace the light of spring.
A half-shekel was collected from every male over 20 years old. This was a reminder that not everyone counted, because despite all the justifications that the shekels were collected on behalf of households, in the end women were left out. The annual collection of the shekels served as a head tax, and only certain heads were deemed worthy to be counted. I will continue to argue, that there are no harmless exclusionary activities, because the messages add up day in and day out to those who are left out that they are less than, or other than.
The collection of shekels was designated for three funds: the communal offering, the tabernacle, the socket. The shekels were collected and brought to the Temple for safe keeping, and overseen by Priests, who were required to be above reproach in both actions and appearance. They entered the Temple chamber alone to collect the funds. In order to avoid giving off the appearance that they could snatch a little for themself, the priests wore forbidden to wear anything that might serve as a hiding place for illicit gains, such as a cuffed garment, an amulet, phylacteries, or sandals or shoes.
This Tractate considered the poor, and how to provide for their needs without causing embarrassment. We are told that there were “special” chambers in the Temple. People who had sins to atone for would contribute money to “the chamber of secret gifts.” Those who had come down in the world from noble ancestry would support themselves from the gifts in this secret chamber without risking the embarrassment of openly disclosing their lessened circumstances.
The Tractate devotes several pages to the lost Ark and the Ten Commandments. The traditional view was that the ten commandments were split between two tablets – with five on one and five on another. But a chorus of unnamed Rabbis suggest that in fact all Ten Commandments were written on each of the two stones. It suggested that in fact there were twenty commandments on each tablet, or perhaps forty, because the words were written on each side and cubed.
This Tractate includes a discussion on stringencies that determine how to best place a found coin if it is on the floor equally spaced between two collection horns. We are presented with a principle that says the found coin should be placed in the collection that is the most stringent. There is a discussion on how to determine stringency. But underlying this dialog is the greater challenge of determining what the right thing to do is when there is ambiguity.
What is prevalent in all the details of everyday life in this Tractate is the sense of loss associated with the destruction of the Temple that cuts deeply into the narrative of our ancestors. We carry that loss in our liturgy and in our identify of who we are as a people. We went on after the destruction of the Temple to flourish in communities around the world, despite future tragedies that would prove to be unimaginable. But still, even with all the loss, there is the sanctuary that was created through our written scripture.
And so together, we turn the page to another Tractate and another journey through what this Tractate described as small waves embedded within larger ones.